The Valley of Death

Posted on 6th December, by JimYoung in Blog. No Comments

Projects are meant to solve problems, but sometimes the bigger problem is the project itself.

The troubled Novopay or “no pay” project as we might call it, is our Ministry of Education’s unpopular payroll venture, undertaken by relative newcomer, Aussie contractor Talent2.  Novopay is New Zealand’s largest payroll project to date. The project has been plagued with widespread and ongoing transition problems as the implementers charge ahead, as did the suicidal Light Brigade of the British cavalry into “the valley of death” during the Crimean war in 1854 – hence the title of this blog entry.  Well, actually the Novopay project is also way behind schedule.  It’s over-spent, behind time, not working properly and definitely not user-friendly, which is a bad combination, but not uncommon for complex IT projects.

As a taxpayer I’d like to know the cost of this dubious investment.  The media has quoted estimates of $30 million, then $60 million, and $100 million.   More recently $53 million was mentioned.  Of course an exact estimate is an oxymoron.  Unlike the Light Brigade, Talent2 have not suffered any deaths yet, but the project manager may be feeling ill, given that in this business we’re about as good as our last project.   And Talent2 is presumably anxious about reputational damage and won’t be trilled at the prospect of losing big money and future business.  But hey, that’s what happens when you screw up.   And the later in the project lifecycle that problems arise, the more expensive things are to put right.

Project Lifecycle

I think it’s fair to say that our local teaching fraternity do not relish change and they also have a very low whinge threshold, which has me wondering if a lack of teacher commitment or even obstruction has contributed to this unsuccessful roll out.   A recently leaked Education Ministry survey found that most teachers see no benefit in this new system and didn’t understand why it was needed when the old Datacom offering seemed to do the job.

Predictably, there are teething problems with the customisation of the Novopay software since the parameters are complex due to the multitude of pay conditions and allowances involved. While Talent2 don’t seem to be sufficiently capable, I wonder to what extent teachers’ traditional resistance to change has magnified these issues?

Most of Novopay problems seem to arise where schools interface with the Talent2 help centre, which teachers accuse of providing indecipherable advice and miscommunications – reminiscent of Balaclava.  To further ratchet up the pressure the NZ Educational Institute (our teachers’ rather too powerful union), whose call centre has been inundated by distressed and angry teachers, is now threatening legal action.  Yeah – that will help.

Valley of Death Diagram

The “valley of death” for complicated projects such as Novopay occurs as deliverables are implemented and unexpected and withering cannon fire and other things that go bump in the night, take their toll.  When users see no benefit in the project and lack commitment, inattention to the inevitable teething problems may sink any venture.   Conversely, solving these teething problems usually saves the day and ensures that benefits are ultimately realised.  Solving teething problems is reliant on the willing cooperation of implementers and users.

With on-going negativity and poor communications, project death is not left to chance and predicted failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as there is little motivation to put things right.  Without serious intervention Novopay could be destined for such failure.  Talent2 along with the Ministry have created a disaster hitherto unseen since the INCIS fiasco, the notorious IBM/NZ Police project debacle of the 1990s, which was a pioneering endeavour at the time.  And Novopay seems to possess all the threat ingredients expressed in the INCIS acronym:






When these five factors are present in the same project, they are likely to have a compounding effect, rather than a compensating effect, and thus create a project disaster, unless appropriate and proactive risk management practices are employed throughout the project lifecycle from business case onwards.

Stakeholders, particularly project team members and product users, can have a positive or negative impact on project success.  Misinformation, negative comments, poor attitudes, lack of cooperation, lack of support, lack of interest and even sabotage can defeat any project.

What can we do to avoid these Novopay-like crises?   Perhaps the most important and obvious strategies are to base our project on a realistic business case, apply risk management throughout, involve stakeholders as early as possible, even before they know they are stakeholders, trial prototypes before going nationwide, have a phased introduction, and provide users with effective training in the new product before its implementation.  Such measures should be contained in project plans.

Meanwhile, confidence in Novopay isn’t improving, although I read today that Raglan School cleaner Karen Lelievre, who has done dozens of shifts without pay, has now got her money.   In fact, most teachers are now being properly paid. Yet, Novopay problems run deep. The project is like a multi-story building with dodgy foundations. There’s unlikely to be any quick fix.

Unless the Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy intervenes, teachers will continue to whinge, heads will roll, there’ll be a Cabinet reshuffle, and the whole train-wreck will be investigated by an independent fixer, although probably not Sir Wira Gardiner in this instance. Of course, the decision to go with Talent2 was made by Labour in 2008. Anyway, Novopay is about to move into recovery mode. Tactics for reversing failing projects are thoughtfully and thoroughly itemised in this IIL article by Dr Harold Kerzner.

No doubt useful lessons will be learned or relearned as a consequence of the Novopay debacle.   However, we need to be careful that we don’t apply these lessons with religious zeal to our next project, since all projects harbour unique seeds for their own destruction.  And technology is zooming onward.  High technology stuff is often obsolete before it leaves the factory.  So, past lessons need to be applied to future projects, but with discretion, particularly if they are IT projects where pretty much everything is always new.  Such projects are not for the faint-hearted.

Finally, let’s put Novopay in perspective. A greater issue is that one in five Kiwi children leave secondary school unable to read or write properly. Maybe that’s the next project for our beleaguered Ministry to tackle.

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